Our Town: A Travel Editor's Guide to Buffalo
Buffalo residents are sick and tired of hearing about the city’s depressing history, but the conversation is changing. In the past couple of years, the Queen City has morphed into a destination with an enviable art scene, world-renowned architecture, and an exciting new restaurants—and people are starting to take notice. Ranked as America's Favorite City in Travel + Leisure's annual survey, Buffalo is shedding its reputation as a forgotten Rust Belt town in favor of a more polished persona. So forget everything you've heard about my hometown and check it out for yourself.
Where to Eat
Buffalo has a culinary reputation that's centered around fried finger foods and quick eats, but the dining scene is so much more vibrant than hot-sauce battered chicken wings (although a stop at Anchor Bar—the infamous birthplace of the chicken wing—shouldn't be discounted.) There's a new wave of chefs opening up inventive and unique eateries throughout the city.
Craving and Marble and Rye are the new kids on the block, with chefs who use only local ingredients and make everything from scratch. Both restaurants are also known for their skilled bartenders—cocktails here go way beyond the run-of-the-mill vodka and tonic water.
There are also a host of old haunts that should be a must on your list of places to visit. Simply put, Chefs Restaurant should be considered a national treasure. They've been serving up the best (and biggest) spaghetti parmesan in the city since 1923, and dining there is a near-religious experience that shouldn't be missed. Another local fixture, Gabriel's Gate, offers arguably the best chicken wings in the city, but go with a bit of patience as the service can get a little slow.
No meal is complete without dessert, so I always encourage visiting friends to stop by Parkside Candy. The vintage shop has served locals affordable and delicious sundaes and chocolates for nearly 90 years. The building boasts an old-world charm, with a detailed domed ceiling and mahogany woodwork. There's also an original soda jerk bar, and what seems like endless glass display cases of hand-crafted treats. It's perfect for any history nerd like me who wants to experience the city, both old and new.
Where to Drink
Any Buffalonian can tell you that there's no shortage of watering holes in the city, and I've been to most. With so many people spending their time socializing at bars, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Buffalo is called the "City of Good Neighbors." Recently, there's been a wave of crafted-cocktail spots that go beyond from the usual gin and tonic or generic draft beer.
In no particular order, Vera Pizzeria, Toutant, Buffalo Proper, and Savoy are all spots that cocktail lovers should check out. Their cocktail menus are vibrant and creative with unique twists that make for a standout experience. All relatively new to the game, these places bring a sense of skill that's been largely absent from the drinking scene for quite some time.
If you're a craft beer fan then Buffalo is perfect for you since there are roughly a dozen independently run breweries in the city limits. My top choices include Resurgence Brewing Company, Flying Bison Brewing Company, Big Ditch Brewing Company and Community Beer Works.
For the non-alcoholic crowd, there's no shortage of spots to grab a great coffee or tea. SPoT Coffee was the lone kid on the block for a number of years, serving quick eats and espresso drinks in a handful of locations spread throughout the city, but that's since changed. Now, places like Sweet_ness 7 Cafe and Tipico Coffee bring a West Coast touch to this Rust Belt town. Sweet_ness 7 opened in a once decrepit building on a downtrodden street that's now quickly becoming one of the best destinations in the city for shopping and people watching. The eclectic interior of antique furniture, expansive murals, and repurposed dishware gives off a Portland vibe, and the baked goods and coffee is top notch. Tipico, on the other hand, has more of an L.A. persona with white-washed walls, hand-painted tiles, Edison bulbs, and a fully retractable window wall that makes the small space feel much more expansive.
Where to Stay
There are a slew of beautiful hotels throughout the city that range from modern to boutique, many of which you can get for a steal. There are the long-time favorites like the Mansion on Delaware, housed in a former manor on what was once the city's most lavish street, but there are also smaller, more intimate options like the Elmwood Village Inn that are great if you want to be right in the center of things.
A number of hotels have transformed abandoned buildings, keeping in line with the resurgence of the city. The Hotel @ the Lafayette was completely transformed from a flophouse to arguably the most pristine hotel in the city after a $43 million renovation. The hotel was overhauled to bring it back to its original early 1900s splendor. The Curtiss Hotel, while not yet open, will offer a high-end boutique experience and a roof top lounge.
What to Do
The city’s architecture is simply unparalleled. You have works by famed architects both past and present, including Frank Lloyd Wright (the father of modernist architecture), Frederick Law Olmsted (the guy who designed New York City's Central Park), Louise Bethune (the first professional female architect), and Minoru Yamasaki (the architect of the World Trade Center in New York), to name a few. Plenty of the buildings designed by these greats still stand today, and many offer tours for the inquisitive.
For art lovers, a visit to the Albright-Knox, the Burchfield Penney or the CEPA Gallery is a must. These internationally recognized spaces are celebrated for their extensive collections and could easily rival any big city.
Those looking for adventure should check out Elevator Alley Kayak. I haven't yet had the opportunity to try it myself, but it's on my bucket list. You can cruise down the Buffalo river in the middle of towering grain elevators and soak in the history that makes the city so great. Since the tour starts and finishes at Canalside (the city's renovated waterfront), take the time to walk the boardwalk afterward, or head to the Outer Harbour (the expansive park system that lines Lake Erie).
Best Day Trips
Niagara Falls is on every out-of-towner's to-do list because it's only a 30-minute drive from downtown Buffalo. You could easily spend a day bouncing around the surrounding parks for the best views, but I'd suggest starting on the New York side at Niagara Falls State Park and working your way over to the Canadian side (bring your passport!). That way, you get a complete and unobstructed view of the Falls.
What I Want to Try
The city has changed drastically in only the past couple of years. Larkin Square is a neighborhood that personifies this change. Now, the once crumbling factory buildings stand with a fresh new skin, the local square hosts dozens of events each year, and there's a food truck meet up each week during the summer. Lloyd Taco truck, a local favorite at these weekly events, recently opened up a brick and mortar location that's been getting rave reviews. The menu is much more expansive than their mobile menu and the drinks are said to be some of the best in town.
I've also heard that an old haunt of mine, and many, many others, has opened under new ownership. The Place, situated on a quiet side street in the Elmwood Village—one of the city's most popular neighborhoods for shopping, drinking and dining—has been cleaned up but while maintaining its character. They keep it simple with a short list of home-style dishes and a number of classic sandwiches. I'm hoping that it has stayed true to its history and is still serving the best Tom and Jerry cocktail in town during the holidays.
While there are tons of places I'd like to check out on my next trip home, EXPO Market is definitely at the top of the list. I'm a sucker for city markets and Buffalo has been lacking one for far too long. It's a small venture by comparison to other big cities, but the shops are locally owned and offer quality goods. After all, the best way to understand the lifeblood of a city is to spend an afternoon walking through its central market—and now, Buffalo has one of its own.